Summarized – Tech and business books I read in 2021
After last year's focus on customer development and agile architecture, this year had three main themes: Building agile teams, Organization, and Product Strategy.
The books where shaped by me switching jobs and my focus on building up a product and engineering organization almost from scratch, as well as my search for books to suggest to others who want to learn about product work.
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Building agile teams
Right at the beginning of 2020, I helped to set up new product development teams at one of the companies I was working with. I remembered the benefit of explicit team norms from my time at McKinsey, and was looking for a book about the practicalities of starting up a team. Liftoff is a good introduction into the topic, though not as deep and extensive as I had hoped.
A good read for anyone starting a team.
I sometimes argue that the retrospective is the only part of agile work that is non-negotiable: Even if everything else is in shambles, a great team that takes time to improve can fix it. This book is a collection of methods to use when facilitating a retrospective, from making the participants feel comfortable to defining next steps. If you take part in retrospectives, this will give you ideas how to improve them.
A huge part of team work is communicating. This book identifies five different communications that need to happen when working with agile teams, from building trust, unveiling fears, giving meaning, committing, and creating accountability. It's a great read both for people building teams, as well as for members of the teams.
While a lot of books talk about how agile teams work, fewer books tackle how to be a manager in this environment. And often, companies try to fix teams to fit to non-agile management instead of fixing management to be part of agile.
This book felt sometimes a bit superficial, but did cover many topics relevant to anyone who is in a management layer above an agile team.
The name might be a bit misleading: This book is not about puzzles or games. It's about organizing and, more importantly, scaling engineering teams. Although most relevant for quickly growing companies, it also has chapters on other topics of engineering management.
It is a must-read when hyper-scaling, but it is also worth a read when adding just 10% of new employees.
Similar how An Elegant Puzzle is about organizing engineers, Escaping the Build Trap takes a similar role for Product teams. It's a little bit less focused on organization and a bit more on actual product work, but it will teach you how to move an organization from being sales-lead to being product lead, from roles to processes. It's a great read for anyone working on product organization.
This book covers similar topics to Escaping the Build Trap. I found it a bit less helpful, mainly because some of the practices described seemed to be not in line with newest knowledge about agile. But it's still a great read for anyone managing product managers or product teams.
Regardless of whether you are managing engineers or product managers - or any other employees for that matter - I do recommend to read this book. Great Mondays talks about how to set up purpose, values, behaviors, recognition, rituals and cues to make a great work culture. I really liked about the book that it both shows you a goal for building a culture towards, but also concrete workshop agendas to actually get there.
Radical Focus: Achieving Your Most Important Goals with Objectives and Key Results (by Christina Wodtke)
Before diving into the product strategy itself, this book is a great read to understand how to set a clear focus. Anyone who ever worked with me will know how strict I can be about having a clear focus on only the one thing that currently is most important. This book explains much of the why.
Now you know that you should focus on the one thing that is most important. But how do you find it? Still not the time to jump into the product strategy. First, read Good Strategy Bad Strategy which talks about what actually makes good strategy: Start with a deep analysis of the situation (this is something I have seen companies skipping way too often), and then find the right approaches for this situation with help of the sources of power described in this book.
The Jobs To Be Done Playbook: Align Your Markets, Organization, and Strategy Around Customer Needs (by Jim Kalbach)
What do our products need to offer to our users? They have a job to fulfill, often multiple. Understanding which jobs our customers hire our product fore makes it easier to understand what to build. The Jobs To Be Done Playbook has good introductions both into what the JTBD framework looks like, but also how to figure out which jobs your product fills. A great read for anyone working on product, from engineer to CEO.
Continuous Discovery Habits: Discover Products that Create Customer Value and Business Value (by Teresa Torres)
Now that we have covered the basics of how to decide which direction to run towards, this book is another strong recommendation from me to bring product strategy to life. At this point, you should already have a first idea of where your product should be headed. But how do you find the actual features to work on? Continuous Discovery Habits talks about Opportunity Maps and Assumption Maps and how they can be used to continuously evaluate what to work on in the next few months, as well as giving a bottom-up shape to the overall strategy.
Once you know what to build, you still need to build it. This is another book that I strongly recommend to anyone building software products. It talks about how to use User Story Maps and User Stories to define the slices to work in each day. If you think "User story" means "As an X I want to Y so that Z", then this is the book for you.
The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels (by Michael D. Watkins)
Last year, I started my job as CTO at optilyz. I wanted to be a little bit more systematic about my own onboarding than I had been before, so I picked up this book. It was a really helpful read, especially the focus on which relationships to build and how to balance the urge to change with the need to first understand the existing organization. It's a great read for anyone jumping into a new job, but also very interesting for anyone onboarding someone else for their first 90 days in a managerial role.
At the beginning of the year I read up on tech fundamentals. One of the books I picked up, Networking All-in-One For Dummies, was a great and simple introduction to OSI layers, TCP/IP and Ethernet. Easy enough to be read even withoug much preknowledge, but deep enough so that I now feel comfortable explaining these topics to others. It is mostly about presentation, though, reading through the related Wikipedia articles might also work for you.
Recommended for anyone interested in networking basics.
Last but not least, I also read The Software Craftsman. I'm a bit ambiguous about it as it is part of a series in joint work with Robert C. Martin (see last year's review of The Clean Coder for more context), but since it is a different author, and I do not want to substantiate the idea that Software Craft is inevitably linked to Robert C. Martin, I decided to include it in this list anyways. The book doesn't talk much about actual coding practices, but takes a deep dive into how we as Software Crafters (a term nowadays preferred to "Software Craftsman" for obvious reasons) learn and behave. One of the main lessons from the book that deeply resonates with my own values is the idea that, as Crafters, our job is not to do what we are told, but what is right. We are hired to bring in our expertise to solve user problems, and if our solutions are shoddy, then "you told me to do it like that" is not a good-enough excuse.
That's it for 2021! As my summary comes quite late this year, there are already some books like Find Your Why or Designing Data-Intensive Applications that I'm looking forward to talk about next year.
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